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Jack Zaleski: 60-mph trains at Devils Lake too fast

Sixty miles an hour is too fast for BNSF trains to be roaring through downtown Devils Lake, N.D. The railroad has informed the city it intends to raise speed from 30 mph to 60 mph in order to address a backlog of grain trains, Amtrak service suspensions and delays, and other freight bottlenecks on the old Empire Builder route across northern North Dakota that runs from the Montana line to the Minnesota border.

The universal response from the people of Devils Lake has been an unequivocal “no.”

I know Devils Lake well, having lived there for nearly 20 years. Great place. I was editor and, for a couple of years, general manager at the Devils Lake Daily Journal, which at the time was located about a block from the railroad tracks and the historic Great Northern depot (now the Amtrak station).

The main line’s tracks slice diagonally through a busy downtown, complete with businesses, residences, public facilities and close-by elementary schools. One of the schools, Minnie H, where my kids attended, is just below the raised grade of BNSF’s tracks. Just across the street from the depot, the grand Great Northern Hotel is now a residential and commercial building. A day care center and senior center are within spitting distance of the tracks.

The railroad has upgraded the rails to accommodate the higher speed. That’s nice. But high-speed train traffic through a small-city urban corridor is a non-starter, especially when considering the changed nature of freight. Like every North Dakota city on BNSF’s line, the number of mega-trains pulling tank cars filled with volatile Bakken crude oil has increased dramatically. Recent slow-speed oil train derailments and fires have focused attention on a rising risk to life and property.

And BNSF wants to double the speed of its trains – oil and otherwise – through Devils Lake? Not a good idea, either for the people of the city or for the less-than-pristine public relations face of the nation’s second-largest railroad.

Trains slow down through Fargo-Moorhead – as slow as 20 mph for loaded oil trains. There’s a speed limit below 60 mph near Casselton, where that community came close to disaster when an oil train was struck by a passing freight, derailed, exploded and burned last December. Those trains were said to be moving at about 40 mph.

There might be a compromise. Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson met with railroad executives last week. Johnson knows th-e overwhelming majority of the people of his town are against a 60-mph train speed. Maybe 40 mph or 45 mph might be acceptable in tandem with additional right-of-way barriers and warnings. Or maybe not, given the railroad’s tendency to do what’s good for the railroad, and to be less attentive to legitimate safety concerns in cities along the tracks.

But hauling hazardous stuff through town at 60 mph? No way.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at or (701) 241-5521.